You may have seen him on MSNBC where he is a public health analyst — or in Tal’s where he loves to buy bagels. Upper West Sider Dr. Irwin Redlener is a nationally known pediatrician, founding director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, and professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He is also co-founder — with his wife, Karen, and singer/songwriter Paul Simon — of the Children’s Health Fund, a nonprofit that has provided health care to underserved children since 1987, and, now, a columnist for West Side Rag.
You provide questions in the comments and he’ll provide as many answers as possible in his weekly column: For What It’s Worth, appearing on Tuesdays. Please be aware that Dr. Redlener cannot give specific personal medical advice. For that you need to consult your regular physician. The views expressed here are Dr. Redlener’s, not endorsed by West Side Rag.
By Dr. Irwin Redlener
So here we go. Out with 2021, in with 2022. It’s tough to know where to start saying good riddance to a pretty rough year, as years go.
So where are we and what can we expect? Just remember that whatever any expert says or whatever guidelines are proposed by the government about Covid-19 today, recommendations could change — and probably will change — as new data and insights become available.
That said, I really do believe that for those who are fully vaccinated, there are legitimate reasons to be hopeful that the 2022 version of the Covid pandemic will be less unsettling, less dangerous than what we went through last year. I say this well aware that Covid-19 is a wily virus fully capable of changing shape (mutating) and altering its impact on human health.
Keep in mind that whatever variant, Delta or Omicron, predominates in 2022 – including the possibility that a new variant may emerge – there are some serious caveats that must be reinforced if we are to optimize our chances of staying healthy and safe in the new year.
First, we absolutely can’t let up on getting everyone fully vaccinated – by which I mean at least three appropriately spaced jabs. Feel like you’d like to skip that “booster” or third shot? Forget it. Two jabs is just not good enough. Sorry.
Not vaccinated? Please reconsider. You are taking a serious personal risk and if you go to the hospital, you will potentially expose every health care worker who cares for you to the virus. And if you get admitted, you’ll take up a hospital bed and use staff that could otherwise be assigned to caring for seriously sick or injured patients who may not have Covid-19, but have other conditions that need urgent care.
Secondly – and I know this is tough – we will need to have vaccine passports for travel. Covid is biological wildfire. In my opinion, nobody should be allowed to board an airplane, train (or bus for that matter) without proving that they are vaccinated.
Third, don’t let up on pressing all the political buttons you have access to, pushing unrelentingly to make sure that the U.S. gives more — much more — to making sure the entire world is vaccinated. There are countries in Africa that have vaccinated less than 3% of their populations. Terrible for citizens of those countries. But it sucks for us, too. Every under-vaccinated community in Ethiopia (or Florida or western Minnesota, for that matter), is a breeding ground for potentially virulent mutations. They will eventually find us! You just can’t hide from a mad pandemic virus.
Finally, I want to share a perspective with you about the concerns – and widespread confusion – about the Covid-19 delta variant versus omicron. This is not yet well described, but here’s what I think: On an individual clinical basis, the delta version is a rapid spreading, multi-system attack machine that damages small blood vessels and is capable of infecting your lower respiratory system. Think lungs and pneumonia. It can and often does render unvaccinated victims seriously ill, intubated in the ICU or dead.
While the omicron variant is a wildly transmissible infection that seems to be somewhat resistant to vaccines, it does not usually attack the lungs, as far as data suggests today. It can still make you sick with severe “cold-like” symptoms, but is way less likely to kill you or land you in the ICU. At least that’s what seems to be the case at the moment.
The key message is that to avoid getting very sick from either variant. You need the initial vaccine series, plus a booster (mix and match OK). And you may well need a fourth shot. Stand by! (Remember: 2, 3 or 4 shots do not, will not, guarantee that you won’t get sick from Covid-19. They just represent your best hope of avoiding an ICU admission– or worse – if you get infected.
By the way, Covid-19 rapid testing does not differentiate among variants; only specialized labs have those capabilities. When we see predominantly “upper respiratory” symptoms (sneeze, congestion, sore throat, cough, and so on) in a patient, we assume that the patient probably is dealing with the omicron version — especially if that’s the variant running wild in the community.
So that’s it for this week. Stay healthy, be careful and try to stay engaged and fulfilled in 2022!
You can follow Dr. Redlener on Twitter: @IrwinRedlenerMD